American Priorities Report: Global Warming Concern Drops 13% Over Five Years, Partisan Divide on Environment

2011 marked another year for decline in support on the environment. The latest Pew report on public priorities states, “No issue divides partisans more than the environment.” Global warming, while more heavily prioritized by Democrats, has drastically and consecutively fallen in the past five years — to the bottom of the list of American priorities.
Public Priorities: Deficit Rising, Terrorism Slipping

Cross-post from Pew Research Center

As the 2012 State of the Union approaches, the public continues to give the highest priority to economic issues. Fully 86% say that strengthening the economy should be a top priority for the president and Congress this year, and 82% rate improving the job situation as a top priority. None of the other 20 issues tested in this annual survey rate as a top priority for more than 70% of Americans.
More generally, the public’s concerns rest more with domestic policy than at any point in the past 15 years; 81% say Obama should be focused on domestic policy, just 9% say foreign policy. In keeping with this, defending against terrorism and strengthening the military are given less priority today than over the course of the past decade.
Nonetheless, the public is keeping a wary eye on Iran. It is now seen as the country that represents the greatest danger to the U.S., and more Americans prioritize taking a firm stand against Iran over avoiding military conflict. And with respect to restructuring America’s national security policy, the public is evenly divided as to whether a smaller military can be just as effective as a larger one in facing future security challenges.
Shifting GOP Priorities
The new poll finds that the federal budget deficit stands out as the fastest growing policy priority for Americans, largely because of growing Republican concerns about the issue. In the national survey, conducted Jan. 11-16 among 1,502 adults, 69% rate reducing the budget deficit as a top priority – the most in any of the Pew Research Center’s annual policy priority updates going back to 1994.
The number of Republicans rating the budget deficit as a top priority has spiked to 84% from 68% a year ago and just 42% five years ago. Meanwhile Republicans are placing far less emphasis on terrorism, which was their top priority in every year between 2002 and 2008. Today 72% rate it as a top priority, down from 83% a year ago and 93% five years ago. By contrast, the emphasis Democrats and independents give to terrorism and the budget deficit has changed far less.
Party Divide on Medicare, Health Care
Making the Social Security and Medicare systems financially sound continue to be top-tier issues for Americans, with 68% and 61% rating them as top priorities, respectively. There is a substantially larger partisan divide over Medicare, which Democrats view as higher priority than do Republicans, than over Social Security. Reducing health care costs remains one of the more divisive issues politically, as it was even before the recent battle over health care reform. Currently, 71% of Democrats rate it as a top priority, compared with just 49% of Republicans.
Energy and Environment
No issue divides partisans more than the importance of environmental protection – 58% of Democrats say it is a top priority, compared with just 27% of Republicans. Of the 22 items tested, environmental protection is one of the lowest GOP priorities, along with such issues as improving transportation infrastructure and campaign finance reform. Dealing with the nation’s energy problems, by contrast, is of equal importance to both Republicans (55% top priority) and Democrats (57%), though other recent surveys suggest that partisans have very different solutions in mind.
Since it was first tested on the annual policy priorities list in 2007, the share of Americans who view dealing with global warming as a top priority has slipped from 38% to 25%. Democrats (38%) are far more likely than Republicans (11%) to rate this as a top priority. But the decline has occurred across party lines: In 2007, 48% of Democrats rated dealing with global warming as a top priority, as did 23% of Republicans.
Money and Politics
Despite a recent focus on the issue of money in politics, including the role of Super PACs in the 2012 Republican primaries, the issue remains on the back burner for most Americans. Just 28% say reforming the campaign finance system is a top priority for the president and Congress in 2012, and it is one of the lowest ranked issues across party lines. Somewhat more (40%) say reducing the influence of lobbyists and special interest groups in Washington is a top priority. There has been little change in the public’s focus on either issue compared with previous years.
Declining Focus on Immigration
The share of Americans ranking illegal immigration as a top priority has fallen to 39% from 46% a year ago and 55% in 2007. This decline has occurred across party lines, with a notable drop among Republicans. In 2007, illegal immigration was the second-highest priority after terrorism for Republicans, with 69% rating it as a top priority. Today, 48% of Republicans rate it as a top priority, placing it behind 11 other priorities.





Tax Fairness a Low GOP Priority
About six-in-ten Americans (61%) say that making the tax system more fair should be a top priority for the president and Congress this year. It ranks among the top 10 issue priorities, well above items like immigration or the environment, and nearly on par with perennially top-tier issues like education (65% top priority). Democrats and independents rate this as a more critical issue than do Republicans, but half of Republicans say this should be a top priority in 2012. About two-thirds of Americans with household incomes under $75,000 rate this as a top priority, compared with about half of those earning $75,000 or more.






Iran a Top Concern
The recent tensions over Iran’s nuclear program and disputes between the U.S. and Iran in the Persian Gulf have garnered a good deal of public attention. Roughly four-in-ten (42%) say they have heard a lot about this, and 41% have heard a little. The percentage naming Iran as the country posing the greatest danger to the U.S. has more than doubled to 28% from 12% a year ago, and it now ranks slightly higher than China. Of those following the Iran situation, 54% say the U.S. should take a firm stand against Iran’s actions, while 39% say it is more important to avoid a military conflict with Iran.
On Afghanistan, the public favors removing U.S. troops as soon as possible by a wide 56% to 38% margin. Obama continues to receive highly favorable marks for his handling of Afghanistan, and more approve than disapprove of his handling of Iran as well. (For more, see “Obama: Weak Job Ratings, But Positive Personal Image” Jan. 19, 2012).
The State of the Union
As President Obama prepares for his third State of the Union speech Tuesday evening, 36% say this address will be more important than previous years’ speeches; 14% say it will be less important and 46% say it will be about as important as past State of the Union addresses. This is about the same balance of opinion offered before each of Obama’s previous two addresses.
Not surprisingly, far more Democrats (53%) than independents (29%) or Republicans (27%) view Obama’s speech as more important than usual. However, there is considerably more agreement that Obama should focus his energies on domestic issues, rather than foreign policy: Currently, 81% want the president to focus domestically, much more than said this prior to George W. Bush’s last two State of the Unions, in 2007 and 2008.
With the nation’s economy still struggling and unemployment still high, economic concerns continue to top the public’s policy agenda for President Obama and Congress. More than eight-in-ten cite strengthening the economy (86%) and improving the job situation (82%) as top priorities. These numbers have fluctuated only slightly since the start of 2009.
Nearly seven-in-ten (69%) say protecting the nation from terrorism should be a top priority, not much different from one year ago (73%) but down from 80% at the start of 2010. Still, terrorism has been at or near the top of the annual priorities list since it was first included in 2002, shortly after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
Concern about the nation’s budget deficit, on the other hand, has been increasing in recent years. Currently, 69% say reducing the deficit is a top priority. In January 2009, only about half (53%) rated this as a top priority. The proportion citing the deficit as a top priority is now on par with the number that said this in December 1994 (65%), during Bill Clinton’s second year in office.
Reducing the deficit or paying off the national debt became less of a priority in the late 1990s as the nation – and the federal government – benefited from a strong economy. Concern was also modest in the early years of the Bush administration, especially in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. But concern about deficits has increased steadily since 2009.
Still, strengthening entitlement programs continues to be important for most Americans: 68% say securing Social Security is a top priority, while 61% say this about the Medicare system. In both cases, those numbers are little changed in recent years. In addition, nearly two-thirds (65%) cite improving education as a top priority, again little changed in recent years. About six-in-ten cite making the tax system more fair (61%) or reducing health care costs (60%) as top priorities.
Dealing with illegal immigration remains a lower priority and concerns have fluctuated in recent years. Currently, 39% say dealing with illegal immigration should be a top priority, down from 46% in 2011; it stood at 40% in 2010. In 2007, a majority (55%) said dealing with illegal immigration should be a top priority.
A Spike in GOP Deficit Concerns
More than eight-in-ten Republicans (84%) say reducing the federal budget deficit is a top priority, up 16 points since last January and the highest percentage in a Pew Research Center survey.
During the Bush administration, at most only about half of Republicans viewed reducing the budget deficit as a top policy priority. In January 2009, shortly before George W. Bush left office, 51% of Republicans rated reducing the deficit as a top priority. That percentage jumped 17 points (to 68%) by January 2011 and has increased by about the same amount (16 points) in the last year alone.
Democrats’ concerns over the deficit also have risen in recent years, though less sharply than Republicans’. Currently, 66% of Democrats say reducing the budget deficit should be a top priority for the president and Congress, up from 52% in January 2009.
Nonetheless, Republicans are far more likely than Democrats to rate the deficit as a top priority. It is often the case that members of the party out of power express greater concern over the deficit than do members of the party in control of the White House. Throughout most of the Bush administration, more Democrats than Republicans rated reducing the budget deficit (or paying off the national debt) as a top priority. In 1997 and 1998, during Bill Clinton’s second term, more Republicans than Democrats viewed these issues as top priorities.
Familiar Partisan Divides
There continue to be substantial partisan differences over other policy goals as well. Nearly six-in-ten Democrats (58%) say protecting the environment should be a top priority for the president and the Congress, compared with just 27% of Republicans and 40% of independents.
Democrats also are far more likely than Republicans to view improving the education system (28-point partisan gap), dealing with the problems of the poor and needy (27 points) and dealing with global warming (27 points) as top priorities. Nearly four-in-ten Democrats (38%) say dealing with global warming should be a top priority, compared with just 11% of Republicans and 21% of independents.
Republicans, on the other hand, are more likely than Democrats to say that reducing the budget deficit (18-point partisan gap) and dealing with moral breakdown in the country (11 points) are top priorities for the president and Congress.
Republicans are less likely to view illegal immigration as a top priority than did so last year and the gap with Democrats has narrowed. About half of Republicans (48%) view dealing with illegal immigration as a top policy priority, down from 61% in 2011. Among independents, the number saying this is a top priority also fell, from 47% to 37%. Democrats’ views are largely unchanged (36% today, 33% last year).
Nearly identical percentages of Republicans (72%) and Democrats (71%), along with 66% of independents, say that defending the country from future terrorist attacks should be a top priority for the president and Congress.
There was a wide partisan gap over the importance of this issue during much of the Bush administration. And as recently as last year, Republicans were more likely than Democrats to rate defending against future attacks as a top priority (83% vs. 72%).





In the wake of Iran’s recent threats to block the Strait of Hormuz and the tightening of economic sanctions by Western nations, most Americans say they have heard a lot (42%) or a little (41%) about the recent tensions. And Iran has now risen to the top of the nations the public says represent the greatest danger to the U.S.: Nearly three-in-ten (28%) volunteer Iran when asked this question.
Among those who are aware of the recent tensions between the U.S. and Iran over Iran’s nuclear program and disputes in the Persian Gulf, a majority say that it is more important to take a firm stand against Iranian actions (54%) than to avoid a military conflict with Iran (39%). More than seven-in-ten Republicans (72%) say taking a firm stand is more important, as do a smaller majority (52%) of independents.
Democrats are more evenly split: 45% say taking a firm stand, 47% say avoiding a military conflict. This reflects a division of opinion within Democrats; while 52% of conservative and moderate Democrats say taking a firm stand is more important, that falls to 36% among liberal Democrats.
There also is a sizable age gap in opinions about how to deal with Iran. Among those under 30 who have heard about recent U.S.-Iran tensions, 56% say it is more important to avoid a military conflict with Iran. Majorities in older age groups – including 61% of those 65 and older –say it is more important to take a firm stand against Iranian actions.
More Perceive Iran as Greatest Danger
When asked which country represents the greatest danger to the U.S., more Americans volunteer Iran (28%) than name any other country, though nearly as many (22%) name China. North Korea (8%), Iraq (7%) and Afghanistan (5%) are mentioned by smaller proportions of the public.
The percentage naming Iran has more than doubled since last January (from 12% then to 28% today); opinions today are on par with those in 2006 and 2007. Compared with last year, fewer now cite North Korea as the most dangerous nation (8% today, 18% then), while about as many say China as did so last January (22% today, 20% last year).
Republicans view Iran as the country that poses the greatest danger to the United States: 42% name Iran, compared with 23% who name China and 9% who say North Korea
By contrast, Iran and China are cited about equally by Democrats (24% and 20%, respectively) and independents (25% each).
Little Change in Views of Afghanistan
A majority (56%) says U.S. troops should be brought home from Afghanistan as soon as possible; 38% say troops should remain there until the situation has stabilized. Public views about the draw-down of U.S. forces are nearly identical to June, although this represented a stark shift from past years.
The public also continues to say the effort in Afghanistan is going at least fairly well (55%), with Republicans (62%) and Democrats (55%) about equally likely to say it is going well. Independents offer less positive assessments (51% very or fairly well, 42% less well).
There continue to be wide partisan differences over whether to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan until the situation has stabilized or bring them home as soon as possible. A majority of Republicans (57%) say troops should remain in the country until the situation has stabilized. Two-thirds of Democrats (66%) and 56% of independents say troops should be removed as soon as possible. These patterns are little changed from June.
Can a Smaller Military Do The Job?
Following the Defense Department’s recent response to cuts to its budget, including plans to scale down the size of the armed forces, Americans are divided in their views about the effectiveness of a smaller military: 44% say a smaller military will reduce effectiveness, while 45% say a smaller military can be just as effective in facing future challenges.
Roughly two-thirds of Republicans (65%) say troop cuts will reduce effectiveness, compared with 46% of independents and just 31% of Democrats. There are substantial differences within partisan groups: While nearly three-quarters of liberal Democrats (73%) say a smaller military would be just as capable, conservative and moderate Democrats are more evenly split (39% less effective, 49% as effective).
Conversely, while moderate and liberal Republicans are split on the question, seven-in-ten conservative Republicans (70%) say downsizing military will diminish its effectiveness.
America’s Image Abroad
A 56% majority of Americans say the U.S. is less respected now than it was in the past. This is unchanged from November of 2009, and remains a more positive assessment of foreign impressions than throughout the later years of George W. Bush’s administration. At the same time, the percentage saying the U.S. is more respected than in the past has declined over the last two years (from 21% to 13%), with a comparable rise in the proportion saying the country is as respected as it had been (from 20% to 27%).
As was the case in 2009, Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say the U.S. is now less respected abroad (66% vs. 50%). But these evaluations shift with administrations; while George W. Bush was president, Democrats were far more likely to say the U.S. had lost respect. Today, 56% of independents say the U.S. is less respected than in the past, similar to the proportion who said this in 2009; fewer now say this than did so from 2004 to 2008.
The analysis in this report is based on telephone interviews conducted January 11-16, 2012 among a national sample of 1,502 adults, 18 years of age or older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia (902 respondents were interviewed on a landline telephone, and 600 were interviewed on a cell phone, including 293 who had no landline telephone). The survey was conducted by interviewers at Princeton Data Source under the direction of Princeton Survey Research Associates International. A combination of landline and cell phone random digit dial samples were used; both samples were provided by Survey Sampling International. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish. Respondents in the landline sample were selected by randomly asking for the youngest adult male or female who is now at home. Interviews in the cell sample were conducted with the person who answered the phone, if that person was an adult 18 years of age or older. For detailed information about our survey methodology, see
The combined landline and cell phone sample are weighted using an iterative technique that matches gender, age, education, race, Hispanic origin and nativity and region to parameters from the March 2011 Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey and population density to parameters from the Decennial Census. The sample also is weighted to match current patterns of telephone status and relative usage of landline and cell phones (for those with both), based on extrapolations from the 2011 National Health Interview Survey. The weighting procedure also accounts for the fact that respondents with both landline and cell phones have a greater probability of being included in the combined sample and adjusts for household size within the landline sample. Sampling errors and statistical tests of significance take into account the effect of weighting. The following table shows the sample sizes and the error attributable to sampling that would be expected at the 95% level of confidence for different groups in the survey:
Sample sizes and sampling errors for other subgroups are available upon request.
In addition to sampling error, one should bear in mind that question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of opinion polls.

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